Meet the latest victim of our hysteria over sexting:
In October of last year, during an unrelated investigation, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department seized the cell phone of a 17-year-old boy. He had a 17-year-old girlfriend. “While our investigators went through the phone they saw there were photos of himself and another person on the phone,” Sergeant Sean Swain told a local news outlet. “Simple possession having it on your cell phone is a charge itself, and if you should send it out to another person that is another charge.”
Now the boy faces five counts of “sexual exploitation of a minor” and the girl faces unspecified charges. Laws intended to protect kids are being used to prosecute them.
Had these images gone undiscovered they’d likely have done no harm at all to these young people. But thanks to the authorities, the boy has now had his photograph and name––which I am withholding but is easily found––published in the local newspaper and broadcast on television. He has been suspended from his high school football team. For months, he has had to deal with the intense anxiety stoked by facing charges of this sort and the prospect of life as a registered sex offender.
This is insane. And it’s not an isolated incident. About a year ago, I noted a case where the police wanted to force a kid to get an erection to confirm that some sext pics were his. In that incident, I said:
Look, I don’t want teens sending naked pictures of themselves around willy-nilly either. But the legal system is not designed for the subtleties of a parental chat. Once you call in the legal system, it deals with things the way it is designed to: with maximum firepower.
At the very least, we need to rewrite our laws to deal with this. It is insane and ridiculous to charge teens with kiddie porn for taking pictures of themselves. Teenagers have been taking naked pictures of themselves since the camera was invented. Hell, somewhere out there is probably a cave painting some prehistoric teenager made of his dick in an effort to impress a cute cavegirl.
I can’t say I’m surprised that we haven’t gotten anywhere on this. Violent crime has plunged in the last twenty years and it seems like the government’s response is to invent new crimes to keep the law enforcement industrial complex going. Witness prostitutes in Alaska being charged with sex trafficking … themselves. Now we have yet another teenager charged with exploiting … himself. Maybe they’ll tack on a molestation charge if he turns out to have masturbated.
Charges like this are usually justified by law enforcement as being necessary to teach kids that sexting has consequences. The Kafka-esque logic behind that is absurd: “we have to teach you that sexting can ruin your life by … ruining your life.” But there’s really no one fighting against this dangerous nonsense.
Last year, Hannah Rosin wrote a long form piece on sexting: why kids do it and how communities are responding. The upshot is that our laws are way behind the times. Many states don’t want to lessen the penalties for fear of being called soft on exploitation. And others have lessened the penalties but still regard sexting by minors as a criminal offense which can eventually be a felony. Rosin focuses on Donald Lowe, a sheriff dealing with a sexting scandal in Louisa County, Virginia, trying to navigate the law without ruining anyone’s life.
About a month into the investigation, Donald Lowe concluded that the wide phone-collection campaign had added up to one massive distraction. Yes, the girls who appeared on Instagram had done something technically illegal by sending naked photos of themselves. But charging them for that crime didn’t make any sense. “They thought they were doing it privately,” he told me, reaching much the same conclusion as Levick. “We’re not helping them at all by labeling them at an early age.” Lowe recalled to me a girl in his own high-school class who had developed a reputation as “the county slut, and it took her years and years to overcome that.” These girls didn’t need their names in the paper to boot.
The case Lowe was dealing with a little more complicated because some boys had put a bunch of sexts onto Instagram without the girls’ consent. But one problem he was up against was enormous community pressure to “do something” about … well, whatever people imagined was going on.
Law needs to change. That much is certain. But we need to change too. We need to stop reacting to stories like this by seeing the boys as predators or the girls as sluts. We need to stop seeing predators behind every blade of grass. We need to realize that teenagers are both stupid and horny and they are going to do stupid things like send naked pictures to each other. In short, we need to find the path that works so well with other vices: harm reduction. Educate teens about sexting (although they won’t listen). Work on ways to get pictures off of the internet and to punish genuine exploiters. But for goodness sake, don’t charge kids with child porn for sending each other naked pictures.